Andy Gray’s first goal for Leeds United has been a long time coming – 16 years and counting since he made his debut under Howard Wilkinson in 1996.
His blank record at Elland Road contradicts his career in general, most of which has been built on a sharp eye for goal and an average in league games of one strike from every four starts. It gave Gray an obvious target to set himself on his return to Leeds in July.
The notable gap in his resume can be explained by the number of opportunities given to him at Elland Road. To date they have not been vast. He turned professional with Leeds in 1995 but made fewer than 30 appearances before moving to Nottingham Forest. Having rejoined Leeds a month-and-a-half ago, 14 years after parting company with the club, a competitive start did not come his way until Tuesday night.
United’s Capital One Cup tie against Oxford United was the first time in either spell at Elland Road that Gray had been used as a striker.
“When I was a kid I played more as a winger,” he said. “I’ve been a striker for a long time now and that’s how people think of me but before Tuesday night, I’d never played up front for Leeds. I’ve never scored for this club either.
“It was only when I went to Bradford in my early 20s that I started to play as a striker. It’s become my position over the years and I scored goals for almost every club I played for, just not here.”
It is a minor ambition for Gray in a season when personal targets are hard to set. Now 34, he agreed a 12-month deal in July on the understanding that he was unlikely to be one of Leeds’ first-choice forwards. He became a squad player by accepting their offer and saw no point in grumbling about his role as an unused substitute in the first three games of the season.
Gray appeared as a substitute at Peterborough United last weekend and completed 90 minutes against Oxford in midweek as manager Neil Warnock rested five players for the second round of the Capital One Cup. Regardless of his quiet performance, Gray was destined to be dropped for today’s match against Blackburn Rovers as Warnock reverted to his preferred front line of Ross McCormack and Luciano Becchio.
“I knew when I signed that I wasn’t going to be first choice or play every week,” Gray said. “The manager was very honest with me and I came here with my eyes open.
“When you sign for a club like Leeds, especially at my age, you’ve got to be realistic about what you’ll find here. I knew I’d be joining a decent squad. I rate Becchio and McCormack, they’re quality strikers, and they’re going to be first choice when fit and in form. You can’t really argue with that.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to play but I’m happy to do what’s asked of me. If I’d come here thinking I’d be playing every week then I’d be disappointed at the moment.”
In Gray’s eyes, Leeds as a club seem largely familiar – he is a lifelong fan who has attended games at Elland Road throughout his playing career – but certain things have changed in the past 14 years, none more so than United’s training ground at Thorp Arch.
The complex is, or was, one of the most advanced in the country, built with indoor and outdoor pitches, a swimming pool and the facilities needed to house a large academy. When Gray was first on the books at Leeds, Thorp Arch consisted of little more than changing rooms, three outdoor fields and plenty of wide open space – a small indicator of things to come.
Sold by George Graham in 1998, Gray never had the chance to see the complex evolve.
“It’s unbelievable to see how it’s changed,” Gray said. “Back in the early days the academy – or the academy building – wasn’t here. We had changing rooms towards the back (of Thorp Arch) and three pitches. That was it.
“At the time we all thought the facilities were decent but they don’t come close to what’s here now.
“When I compare it to some of the other clubs I’ve been at, the whole place does feel geared for the Premier League. The club have got pretty much everything they need to be in that division and stay there.
“In some ways it makes me wish I’d had more time here but I’m not bitter about the way I left. I’ve had a decent career and played for some good clubs and I’m still playing at the age of 34 so you won’t get many complaints from me. But I know I would have loved being here for longer.”
Had the transfer window gone according to Warnock’s plan, Gray would have seen another striker sign for Leeds and heighten the competition for Becchio and McCormack.
It is an area of United’s squad where Warnock believes he is short, with Gray and Dominic Poleon the only out-and-out replacements for either of his front two. El-Hadji Diouf has played up front in his time but was brought on board to give United an option on the right wing.
Asked how many goals he hoped to score this season, Gray said: “I don’t want to set any targets because I’m not sure how much I’ll be involved.
“The main thing for me is to make a contribution every time I play, whether I’m starting or coming on for the last five minutes. It matters to me because this is the club I’ve followed my whole life and the club where I started out. I want good things to happen here. It was great to get a chance to start the other night but I wish I’d been able to make more of an impression in the game.”
Tomorrow marks the start of the season’s first international break, three weeks after the Championship campaign began. A number of Warnock’s players including McCormack and Rodolph Austin have been called up by their respective countries but many others will have time to kill at an early stage of the term.
Gray said: “It does feel strange to be stopping so soon but you’ve got to take advantage of these periods.
“There’ll be time when we’re playing for weeks or months without a gap in the fixture list and a bit of time to recuperate won’t do anyone any harm.”